Gotham: a Shameless-ly brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan is no joke

I’ve watched a lot of television the last few days, and one thing has become abundantly clear: with a pair of standout turns in Gotham and Shameless, Cameron Monaghan owned TV this week.

Cameron Monaghan owning TV this week

Like I said, Cameron Monaghan, owning TV this week

I’ll start with Gotham, in which Monaghan took on the iconic role of the Joker. It was a star-making turn in a show that has become essential viewing. In just 16 episodes, Gotham has carved out an iconic spot in the TV schedule. Full to bursting with grittily memorable performances, with Ben McKenzie’s beleaguered crusader for justice Jim Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor’s beautifully off-kilter Penguin leading the pack (“hello, old friend”), the show has a rock-solid grip on its world.

Gordon and Penguin face off... face... off...

Gordon and Penguin face off… face… off…

Gotham is a perpetually cloudy, ominous, dirty, baroque version of itself, like an L.S. Lowry steel mill nightmare, peopled with lowlifes and hoodlums, iconic freaks, and lost souls. It’s dark, uneasy, but it’s shot through with a rough, raucous humor, a wild and wide-eyed glee in its strangeness. The show takes a particular kind of comic book sensibility and runs with it; it’s a fractured, monstrous reality that feels 100% grounded.

It’s also, of course, the home to the future Batman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler… Chief amongst these, of course, is the young Bruce Wayne, and the show has done a fantastic job showing us his slow, steady journey towards becoming the Batman. It does make you kind of wish for a spin-off teen Batman and Catwoman show, since David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have been consistently fascinating as their younger versions. The producers have said that the show ends when Batman first puts on his suit, which is on one hand a shame, but on another, completely understandable, since Gotham is Jim Gordon’s show, and Ben McKenzie delivers raw, fearless, intense, hilarious and gripping performances week after week.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” took on the circus, which allowed the show to dive even deeper into its beautiful weirdness. This circus is run by the Lloyds and — future sidekick alert — the Graysons, two families at war. McKenzie’s Gordon is on an awkward date at the circus with Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins, when a fight breaks out in the middle of the show… a fight which ends with the discovery of a body: the snake lady has been murdered, and her son, played by Monaghan, is distraught.

Or so it seemed. Monaghan brought the kind of sensitivity we’ve seen from him in Shameless, at least to start with, as he played the lonely, upset son struggling with his mother’s death. Gordon didn’t buy it though, and in a you-can’t-handle-the-truth showdown in an interview room, Monaghan revealed his character’s true self in an absolutely brilliant and unforgettable 3 minutes of television. We saw flickers of the future Joker rippling across his face as he danced between madness, sadness and psychosis, often in the same beat. And then there was that laugh. Chills. In just a few beats, Monaghan gave an extraordinary, indelible performance that would have been the most iconic moment of the TV week… if Monaghan hadn’t already claimed that title the night before.

Because he also plays Ian in Shameless, a gay teen who has been struggling with bipolar disorder for most of this season. In “Crazy Love,” Ian kidnapped his boyfriend Mickey’s baby and went on a terrifying 18 hour joyride while his friends and family slowly disintegrated with worry and fear. It was a bravura, revelatory performance, culminating in some jaw-droppingly heartbreaking work as Ian finally gets checked in to a mental institution. He played the fear, the overwhelming sadness, the almost total inability to process what was happening, in the most understated of ways.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

 

“Crazy Love” was written by John Wells, himself one of the most iconic figures in TV today, the creative force behind E.R., The West Wing, Third Watch… and of course, SouthLAnd and Shameless, which made the Gordon-Joker face-off something of a SouthLAnd-Shameless mash-up, since McKenzie played Ben Sherman on 5 seasons of the always amazing and canceled-WAY-too-soon SouthLAnd.

Moment of silence for that show.

We miss you, SouthLAnd

We miss you, SouthLAnd

So in this week’s Shameless, Wells did what he does best: create visual and emotional moments of pure television. He did the heavy lifting at the start of the episode (although he’s a brilliant writer, so it seemed effortless), so that by the end, we were coasting on pure emotion, and it was all down to the actors to play the heartbreak. And play it they did.

I want to take a second here to call out Noel Fisher, who has been one of the most underrated but consistently excellent actors on this show. He plays Mickey, the most-feared motherf**ker on the South Side, who is also Ian’s boyfriend. Fisher has been brilliant throughout, conveying the constant struggle as Mickey fights to maintain his rep while also trying to actually be happy. In “Crazy Love,” Fisher showed Mickey coming apart at the f**king seams. His moments in the car ride back from finding Ian, where he realizes that Ian has to be committed, and in the institution at the end, were genuinely astonishing.

No I wasn't crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

No I wasn’t crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

But ultimately, the show was really Monaghan’s, as was Gotham. He owned them both with connected, naturalistic, grounded and heartfelt work, and with these back-to-back performances of troubled, unstable characters, Monaghan has surely put himself on the Emmy map.

Gotham is going from strength to strength with dizzying speed, and Shameless is in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

I love TV.

 

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SouthLAnd’s day of Reckoning

Nothing will ever be the same.

The beginning of the end

The beginning of the end

As season five drew to its genuinely shocking close, the dread that had been building throughout the episode — throughout the season — exploded. It has been the season of John Cooper, played with certified Emmy magnificence to the end by Michael Cudlitz. In effect, he shouldered the entire season like a modern day Atlas, and it was on his tired, weary face that the existential pain of being alive was etched in ever deeper lines as the episodes rolled by. In Reckoning, his agony became complete.

This episode was, without a doubt, SouthLAnd‘s finest moment.

It was expertly scripted by the extraordinarily intelligent Jonathan Lisco, the former lawyer/NYPD Blue writer who has found his true calling with this show. In person, he’s an erudite, precise conversationalist; his scripts feel that way too. The language is honed with the highest skill; whether it’s violent interchanges or quiet interludes, jokes or grief, if you look at his scripts line by line, they are masterpieces of elegance and seamless construction. Nothing is wasted; nothing is uneven. Everything, as Thom Yorke once sang, in its right place.

Reckoning was the best Lisco script yet (despite its lack of Nicki Minaj references). He gave us the final stage of Cooper’s descent into hell, knocking away each and every crutch and support one by one, until the final, most devastating blow of all: Laurie didn’t want to have children with him anymore. The episode was peppered with references to Cooper eating a gun, losing it, disintegrating: in classical Greek style the tragedy wended its way ever closer. Darkness loomed. We just didn’t know how or when it would come.

Even as Lisco was laying down Cooper’s trajectory, he was giving us beautiful (in the mathematical sense as well as the emotional) resolutions to the other two components of SouthLAnd‘s character triptych: Sherman/Bryant, and Adams.

Lydia’s resolution was a nice grace note amidst the darkness: the ever-rumpled Tom Everett Scott returned as Russell Clarke in the last few episodes, and seeing the two of them find their way to a tentative, possible happy ending has been an unexpected pleasure, and yes, in that final, beautifully shot scene on the beach, heartwarming. This is not an adjective I’ve ever used in five seasons of writing about this show, but, of course, they fully earned it, playing out the scene just right, just so. It was a lovely payoff to a relationship that we’ve been feeling and possibly hoping for since the pilot. Regina King and Scott were perfect, and their natural chemistry just flowed.

A rare moment of peace and beauty

A rare moment of peace and beauty

Heartwarming resolutions were in short supply in the other major arc.

The Sammy vs. Ben showdown has been played out so well throughout the season. Ben crossed the line last season in God’s Work, Risk and Thursday. That gave the writers a great platform from which to just f**K with the Ben and Sammy dynamic in season five, and they did a tremendous job with the story they chose: Ben’s complete amorality allowing him to believe that having Chris break into Sammy’s house and tag it with gang signs while stealing the tape was a genuinely okay thing to do.

Can of whup-ass that's about to be opened: not pictured.

Can of whup-ass that’s about to be opened: not pictured.

Spoiler: it wasn’t.

When it came, the storm broke in spectacular fashion. Sammy finally worked it out, and confronted Ben in a tense, fraught, emotional and heartbreaking scene outside the hospital, which ended with a hyper-intense all-out brawl between the two of them. “We were partners,” Ben yells. “That’s right,” spits Sammy. “Were.” And he walks away.

The terse economy of Lisco’s script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy their finest, most accomplished performances of the show to date, in all five seasons.

It's about to be so over

Get ready

The betrayal of trust between these two men who should be brothers, having each other’s back, was devastating. McKenzie was so controlled, giving us Ben’s collapsing emotional world within an intense, desperately holding on performance. Hatosy brought the De Niro/Penn intensity, letting it twist his features as it steadily boiled up from within until he was consumed with heartbreak and rage. Their acting was like f**king opera, man. I bow down to the pair of them: they are two of the finest actors working today. Absolutely extraordinary. That clanging sound you hear is me dropping names: when I hung out with them last year in LA, they were completely relaxed, genial, down to earth, but completely passionate about this show. They transformed their souls for these performances; turned themselves inside out in the way that only truly great actors who trust the material and their director can do.

Their director: Chris f**king Chulack, man. Wow.

He grew up in the shadow of Dodger’s stadium; he knows Los Angeles like few others. Listening to him talk about shooting on the streets of LA is fascinating. It’s no coincidence that SouthLAnd has been the only show on television to, amongst all its other achievements, give us the true fabric of this great city.

Chulack took the show airborne

Chulack took the show airborne

No one shoots LA like Chulack with DP Jimmy Muro at his side. No one. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I am including movie directors on that list. He shoots unflinchingly, architecturally, fluidly, sharply; in the edit, he cuts the episode deep, down to the bone.

Chulack has directed some of the best episodes of TV drama; so when I say this was a career best for him, please see it in that context. It really was a phenomenally directed episode. It layered in the three arcs (tragedy, showdown and possibility), dovetailing them tightly in a way that rushed us forward before we were ready. Because we were never really ready; none of us wanted this thing to end. But it powered its way through the shortest seeming hour in history, even with those extra two minutes.

And it had to end.

None of us were ready for how.

Spoilers.

Cooper’s hellish horror-scape of a season reached a terrible peak in Chaos, as he watched Lucero get executed while they were cuffed together. All Cooper had left was the hope of a child. And Lisco (and the writers room) took that away in Reckoning. They took it all away. They stripped down Cooper’s emotional machinery until he was a wreck of car with no wheels, axles propped up by bricks. He had nothing left. The signs all seemed to point to suicide, and the writers really played this one out in the most close to the line way they could. It seems inconceivable that Cooper didn’t know what he was doing when he refused to throw the gun away in that final scene, instead swaying up to his feet, gun waving. How could he not know they would shoot him? We’ve seen it mentioned before, suicide by cop: wave a gun and wait for them to fire. But… but… he was in the killing rage, red mist clouding everything: sound and visuals were hazy, slowed down, disorientating. Maybe he was on his way to putting his hands up in the air.

A decision is about to be made...

A decision is about to be made…

We may never know. That’s the beauty of SouthLAnd.

Instead, (depending on how this cliffhanger plays out) we might just be left with the memory of Cooper, an extraordinary cop, played in the most grounded, compassionate way by Cudlitz. Has anyone ever done more to earn an Emmy? I don’t think so. Cudlitz has proven himself to be the soul of the show this season, the guardian of all that it stands for. To see his portrayal of Cooper’s helpless descent into loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and then, finally, the heart-rending breakdown of his command presence; it’s been revelatory acting. I’m going to miss Cooper.

There may be no more “hey numbnuts.”

Shit.

Cudlitz did groundbreaking work this season: Emmy better reward him.

This is a possible eulogy for Cooper (those were pretty serious gunshot wounds, but to quote Rob Thomas, there’s dead, and then there’s TV dead). He was one of TV’s most iconic, epic characters. One of TV’s most essential characters. But I don’t want this to be a eulogy for the show; I fully believe it will come back for a sixth season, if not on TNT, maybe on another network like FX or AMC.

I don’t want this show to go.

It means a huge amount to me. I’m not exaggerating — not even a bit — when I say it’s changed my life. It was the spark and the ignition for my TV scriptwriting. It showed me how to write TV scripts; how to tell stories in the most real and most stripped back way; how to create characters that live and breathe and are real. It’s taught me so much, and everything I’ve learned from writing scripts has deeply influenced the way I write my novels. Now everything I write is, I hope, SouthLAnd-style; it’s the standard I aim for, even if I don’t always get there, it gets me further than I would have otherwise. It’s led me to Los Angeles; to meetings with film companies; to an extraordinary hour and a half sitting at a bar having a brilliant conversation with Cheo Coker and Cudlitz. It’s given me amazing experiences. It’s brought me friends (Deb, Bill, Lisa and others).

From the opening shot of the pilot I was hooked; by the time they played the National’s Fake Empire in the final scenes, I was in love with the show. It’s only gotten more intense.

I’ve never been so emotionally attached to a show; so, no, I don’t want it to end. None of us do.

All we can do is let TNT know, keep sending the message.

And keep praying that for SouthLAnd, this isn’t end of watch.

SL R Dewey

SouthLAnd: Chaos

Chaos was outstanding.

Simply put, it was one of the great episodes of this series. With Zack Whedon scripting and Chris Chulack directing, we were in the hands of two masters, who brought us one of the most focused, tense, terrifying and shocking episodes of SouthLAnd we’ve ever seen.

This is what happens when a show is made by such a phenomenal cast and crew: they can refine and redefine their format and still end up with a stunningly powerful piece of drama. With Chaos, they took the show’s prime directive — existing in the moment — and expanded one situation to fill the entire episode, pulling all of the characters into its vortex, and taking it to its most existential and horrifying extreme.

The episode was loosely inspired by the Onion Field event of 1963, in which two LAPD cops were kidnapped while on patrol; only one made it back alive. Of course, the writers room incorporated some of the elements of the real case, and changed/added many others. From here on out, there will be spoilers. Although it’s no spoiler to say that this episode was the most stripped back, brutally raw and head-spinning episode that SouthLAnd has ever produced.

Zack Whedon, who delivered an extraordinary SouthLAnd debut script with Off-Duty earlier in the season, returned to deliver a script that demonstrated extraordinary mastery of the form. The opening freeze -frame narration and action hit hard. The first few scenes did a tremendous job establishing a depth and complexity to Cooper and Lucero’s relationship, with Cooper finally getting sick of Lucero’s homophobia, and dealing with it by inviting him to a gay bar. The arc of awkwardness seemed to be heading into a new understanding between them, until Lucero’s true feelings exploded, demolishing the goodwill between them. The next day, when they respond to an unknown trouble call (has SouthLAnd‘s M.O., unknown trouble — the title of the pilot — ever been more vividly expressed than in this episode? I think not) involving a couple of whacked out junkies who look like they just escaped from the set of Deliverance, they’re not talking to each other.

And then they get taken.

Beaten.

Their belts and uniforms removed.

Handcuffed to each other in the back of a pickup truck headed somewhere unknown.

Whedon set this up perfectly and executed it flawlessly, launching us into the rest of the episode, as Cooper and Lucero get taken into hell.

Taking characters into hell just happens to be SouthLAnd‘s specialty; all drama attempts it — SouthLAnd masters it. So it’s surprising for me to be able to say that with Chaos, Whedon supersized this tendency. I don’t think anyone on the show has been through as much as Cooper and Lucero. And Whedon’s script just kept turning the screw, tighter and tighter, until tension was at an all-time, fever-scream high; the atmosphere more taut and terrifying than it has ever been on this show. By the time one of the rednecks casually executes Lucero, our nerves were already shredded and screaming; that shot to the head tipped us over the edge.

Chris Chulack directed; I’m not sure any of the show’s other directors could have done it. Just as the script was savagely to the point, so the direction was ferocious and visceral. Painfully, unbearably so. Chulack went hard at this episode, finding new angles and a new level of immediacy; given that the show is the most immediate, in the moment show on television, this is a remarkable achievement. Chulack effectively handcuffed us to Cooper and Lucero, and didn’t let us escape. Bastard. It was breathless, horribly raw TV. So much shouting, so much screaming, so much pain, and it was all directed with nerves-flayed-bare minimalism by Chulack. When the rednecks drag off Lucero to cut off his tattoo (yep), Lucero’s screams were godawful. Chulack’s camera followed them down the hall and into the bathroom, showing just enough of what they were about to do, before the door shut and the camera went back to Cooper, giving us his reactions to the terrible screaming from the bathroom. This is highest level directing.

Even given the brilliance of the writing and directing, the episode couldn’t have worked, and was really all about, two men: Michael Cudlitz and Anthony Ruivivar.

As Lucero, Ruivivar had a very difficult job to do in the episode; taking his character through some difficult social situations and unpleasant behavior, before making us empathize with the extreme torture and breakdown that he ends up enduring. Ruivivar was exemplary here, in all those scenes, finding the humanity in Lucero, and the soul in his portrayal of a man facing death. It was a bravura, intense and exhausting performance, played with compassion and depth throughout. He’s been a great addition to the show, bringing a new energy to it, and being a great acting partner for Cudlitz; their dynamic was always entertaining and interesting.

Speaking of… Okay, it’s true that Cooper didn’t get shot in the head. But DAMN SON. He is having the WORST season. It’s been a long, cruel, devastating nine episodes for him. He’s faced darkness, stared into the abyss. He’s faced terrible cruelty and violence and sadness. He’d just found himself in a more stable place, having made some key decisions in the previous episode, decisions that should have set him on a path to a more comfortable, fulfilling life.

Then Whedon and the writers room really f**ked his shit up. Cooper will not escape the effects of this episode lightly. Being cuffed to man when that man gets shot in the head by insane junkies is impossible to recover from. This really has been the season of Michael Cudlitz. He has portrayed Cooper with towering empathy, compassion, intensity and presence. He’s given us Cooper’s pain, knowledge, power, vulnerability, warmth, sarcasm and wit with extreme gravitas. And with this latest episode, which ended with Cooper crushed, broken, destroyed, curled up on the cold nighttime concrete of a gas station forecourt, disintegrating into debilitating sobs, Cudlitz must, SURELY, have guaranteed himself an Emmy. Throughout the ordeal, Cudlitz portrayed something that must be incredibly difficult to do: balancing Cooper’s heroism and relentless determination to survive, with the gut-churning, all-consuming horror and fear that kept exploding. Incredible.

Even with the singular focus of the episode, the script still found time to nudge the Sammy/Sherman partnership closer to its inevitable apocalypse. Sherman’s horror when he saw his girlfriend’s brother wearing Sammy’s jacket (stolen when the guy broke into Sammy’s place last episode) was a great moment. Especially since Sammy was standing right outside the house. And the way that their chase of Stroke-Face ended with the gangbanger falling from several floors up in a construction site and getting grotesquely impaled was a violent reminder of the increasing intensity of the consequences of Sherman’s actions. The final episode of the season (THE SEASON NOT THE SERIES) promises much: the end play of Sherman vs. Bryant, and the massive, citywide manhunt for Cooper’s kidnappers.

The show hasn’t punched its full weight 100% of the time this season, but it is ROCKETING to an extraordinary conclusion. And in many ways, it is far stronger in its fifth season than ever before. Very few shows can remain so powerful after five seasons; SouthLAnd is one of the few, and it has made it very clear: season six will be insanely great.

Random Witness Statements:

  • Zack Whedon has earned his stripes in record time this season.
  • How incendiary is the Sherman/Bryant showdown going to be? 
  • Cudlitz. Emmy. Now.
  • Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy are such fantastic actors. They have been more on the periphery this season, but you wouldn’t know it from their intensity, presence and powerhouse performances.
  • Lydia and Russell FTW.

SouthLAnd “Heroes”: What did Cooper say?

This was a BRUISING episode of the show. It took your emotions and kicked the shit out of them with a cold, quiet ruthlessness; it made you lean in, then slammed your head into the emotional walls it built up through the hour. Thanks for that, Heather Zuhlke!

Zuhlke wrote some of the most brutal and devastating lines I’ve ever heard on this show (or on any show), and they were all reserved for Michael Cudlitz’s scenes.

Cooper is having the WORST season. I mean, his life is barreling down into an emotional abyss that I’m not sure anyone could claw their way out of. This episode marked a new low point for him, as both his father, and his father figure, treated him in terrible and appalling ways. He’s having a bad year, you guys. He’s questioning everything about everything and not finding good answers. So when he digs DEEP and somehow, utterly heroically, dredges up the willingness to see his father (who raped and murdered Cooper’s girlfriend by the way) on his deathbed, and gets told by his old man, “I had to give her what you couldn’t… I’d rather see you dead than have a fa***t for a son,” you felt the bludgeoning cruelty of it, the jaw-dropping, stunning horror of what that must feel like to Cooper. Like an eighteen wheeler hidden in a whisper.

Cooper facing his demons

Cooper facing his demons

It was an extraordinarily written scene, but Cudlitz elevated it to a new, monumental level of quiet tragedy in his stoic, craggy reactions. Incredible acting there, but he wasn’t done yet. He still had to face the other father figure in his life. his former T.O., who is now falling to pieces.

Cooper’s final stop on his daily tour of emotional hell was to receive some more abuse from Gerald McRaney, who has been outstanding in his arc as the guy who taught Cooper everything he knows. McRaney has given a phenomenal series of performances that reached new heights in this episode, first with his drunken, bitter rage and physical abuse of Cooper, and much more so at the end, when he described the terrible loneliness of his existence, the meaningless of it all that was overwhelming him. “I don’t know how I got here” was a heartbreaking line, heartbreakingly delivered by McRaney, who turned this final few minutes into something raw and mesmerizing; it was Shakespearean in its quiet majesty. Jimmy Muro knew exactly how to direct this final scene: point the camera at McRaney, keep Cudlitz in shot, and let the acting masterclass from both of them just play out. In a lot of ways, this episode felt like a play, a classic two hander, thanks to the impact of that final conversation.

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

Not to neglect the rest of this fine episode, but, it all vanished in the wake of this final scene. Nothing could escape its gravity.

That said, there were some fine thematic elements resonating throughout the episode. Hatosy reading “Return Of The Caped Hero” to little Nate; Ruben’s daughter asking Lydia “question six”, which could basically be the subtitle for all five seasons of this show:

How do you not lose hope?

This is a show all about the struggle to keep hope alive. The characters fail and succeed in various ways. Cooper is failing right now. Sherman, on the other hand, has jumped into his personal darkness with no qualms. The death of hope has meant nothing to him — yet. He’s embracing the dark side, while Sammy is imploding under the weight of it.

It’s fascinating to see the writers subjecting their characters to such intense moral stresses. Cooper and Hatosy are true heroes; Lydia is a warrior; Ruben has a laid-back cool that allows him to navigate the horrors; Dewey… is Dewey. One has to wonder where the writers will leave Sherman: because so far, he is loving the freedom that comes from divorcing yourself from moral constraints. Thanks to Ben McKenzie’s fine acting, Sherman’s amorality actually suits him.

So, it was a dark night of the soul in the SouthLAnd this week. Characters are being tested in deeper and more destructive ways. It’s the most intense kind of drama there is.

Random Witness Statements:

  • Seriously, what did Cooper say?!
  • “You were like a god to me.”
  • “A bullet proof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.”
  • Dewey vs. Dewey’s daughter: brilliant
  • “Tell Chick Baby you’re sorry…” Damn, Sammy!
  • “You walked on water, JC.” 

SouthLAnd “Bleed Out”: Cooper will stare you DOWN

Let’s just call this one Cooper’s episode, shall we?

From the photo flash voiceover (“John Cooper’s learned on the streets of Los Angeles, a single step can separate life from death”), through the heartbreaking and dumbass-related situations he had to deal with throughout the day, to the existentially painful confrontation with his former T.O. at the end, this was all about Cooper.

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Michael Cudlitz was f**king amazing in this episode. He did the whole dryly amused thing in dealing with the S&M mishap (classic line from the perp: “my cuffs or yours”); he drew on some deep, quiet heartbreak in his conversations with the victim who got trapped under a city bus, and his face as he watched her getting pulled out was devastating; and he went to a dark, painful place deep within his soul in the scenes dealing with Gerald McRaney’s starkly downward spiral. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Cooper so depressed as he was when Dewey tried to cheer him up in the locker room towards the end. Cudlitz made us feel the epic gravitas of Cooper’s deep crisis; he gave it weight, and somehow made it calm on the surface while showing us the dangerous currents swirling deep down below.

Although nothing, I mean nothing, can compare to the sheer genius of what must be the most devastatingly epic “you’re a numbnuts” staredown that Cooper gave the cop who handcuffed a guy and put him in the back of the patrol car without realizing he had a gun.

Note to self: Cooper does not like being shot at.

This is clearly turning into the season of Cooper’s soul. And in fact, the season as a whole is going deeper into these characters and what makes them tick, what drives them, what can destroy them, or save them. It’s a more subtle, more novelistic season than the previous four. It’s peeling back the layers on our core cast like never before. Flaying them, actually; it’s as unmerciful as it sounds.

One by one, the characters are being relentlessly driven far beyond their limits, into unknown territory for them. It’s dismantling everything they know about themselves, leaving them uncomfortably adrift in unfamiliar waters.

Shawn Hatosy is back in full angsty Sean Penn prowl mode as Tammy’s assault charges keep on rolling forward. She’s driving Sammy crazy and utterly messing with his head, just like she always has; only now, it’s sabotaging his ability to work, and blurring his moral lines, to say the least. Hatosy has been great this season, bringing bite and punch to Sammy’s scenes, giving us a compelling portrait of a man in crisis.

Sherman is continuing on his “a-hole trajectory”, somehow managing to get worse in every episode. His absolute amorality is amusing, though; starting the episode in the shower with one woman, and ending it in a different shower with a different woman, definitely shows his impressive commitment to being a dick. And the way he’s backing up Sammy one minute, reaming him out the next for depriving them of glory, then being all condescending and forgiving him… Sherman is in many ways struggling with who he is and what kind of cop and person he wants to be (he’s embracing the dark side, but one wants to believe it’s costing him). Ben McKenzie is as excellent as ever, and has found ways to shade in new, sharper details in his fearless and uncompromising portrayal of Sherman. McKenzie is a fantastic actor, and this role has been perfect for him. He makes Sherman’s unpleasantness utterly fascinating and compelling.

Regina King brought the despair nicely in this episode, dealing with a case that essentially played out her worst nightmare as a new mom. King was hypnotically distraught and flayed bare, while still keeping Lydia’s steely exterior mostly in place. Her performance was soulful and haunting.

Adams confronting her fears

Adams confronting her fears

Chad Feehan’s script (another debut this season) did a nice job of playing out these scenes of subtle heartbreak (while peppering the episode with some killer one liners), and Chris Chulack directed with a raw yet minimalist power. He unleashed kineticism when necessary (in the car chase, and Sherman’s fight scene), and stayed below the radar the rest of the time, presenting the scenes in a disturbing but SouthLAnd-style unflinching way.

Overall, the episode didn’t fully pop the way this show can (we’ve seen a husband/nanny story told more vividly and soulfully on the show last season, for example, and I know that wasn’t the point of this particular storyline, but it played a big role). However, this was supposed to be a deeper, more soul-searching episode, and in that respect, it delivered and then some.

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Tend to your cactus, man. Rent a musical, do what you do…”
  • “While you were f**king cheerleaders in the bleachers, I was on the streets.”
  • Don’t get the bus in L.A.
  • “Let’s go, P2.”
  • Tommy Howell nailed it as Dewey, again; it was frankly disturbing to see him so subdued; his scenes with Regina were flawless.
  • Sammy and the camcorder: a great SouthLAnd final scene.

SouthLAnd “Under The Big Top” — the greatest show on Earth

SouthLAnd‘s fifth season is shaping up to be its most ruthless and pared down yet, and therefore its most emotionally thrilling.

Everything changes

Everything changes

Under The Big Top was a Sara Gran script, with her distinctive brand of humor and sharp, on the spot character moments. Behind the camera, Felix Alcala brought his aggressive, restless visual style, aided by Dana Gonzales’ impeccable lighting. They made Los Angeles look visceral and amazing, in a clear-eyed, haze-free way this time. This is a show that can occupy different places on its unique viusual spectrum — this episode was all about the middle of the day/late afternoon clarity of the city. It was a particularly great episode for locations that added new dimensions to the scenes, something SouthLAnd excels at. The scene where Cooper and Lucero find a murder suspect and his girl, shot on the other side of the 101 from the Capitol Records building, with the downtown skyscrapers behind them: the light, the traffic, the architecture — it was a passing moment in the script (and a great character moment between Cooper and Lucero), given a kinetic depth by the shooting, framing and editing. This show carves its truths out of the LA landscape with ease.

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales: the detail, the depth of field, the scope and focus of it…

It was a Cooper-centric episode, appropriately, given the title, and his tendency to see the job as one big circus. He had happy moments, tender moments, lonely moments, self-reflective moments, courtesy of Gran’s lovely and understated script. It was a great emotional episode for Cudlitz, who just crushed it in every scene with so much nuance and gravitas and soul. My personal favorite Cooper moment? “Maybe the right one stays.”

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sherman was still busy shedding his humanity and switching off his ability to care about anyone he deals with on the job (unless that person is Annie Monroe playing a teacher with a pleasing amount of snark, holding her own in every scene).

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Ben McKenzie is doing truly fantastic work this season, with his almost terrifying transformation from the new boot who couldn’t stop caring, to the hulking, experienced officer who beats the shit out of a perp on a subway train in front of horrified passengers (to be fair, the guy was trying to kick Sherman’s ass, so Sherman knocking him out wasn’t entirely uncalled for). That scene was pure SouthLAnd — rationality and order descend almost instantaneously into utterly visceral violence and chaos. The stunt team are legends, and the entire cast and crew always make these scenes look horribly, breathlessly real. The way McKenzie just sat down in a nearby seat after cuffing the now unconscious criminal, waiting for the next stop, without saying anything to the other passengers, spoke volumes (Seth Cohen was right, he can say SO MUCH without even speaking)(Sorry for the OC reference, but Cohen nailed it — McKenzie is getting Brando-like in his intensity and wordless stares, hollowed out like he’s at the end of Apocalypse Now).

Changing relationships

Changing relationships

So powerful is McKenzie’s performance, he’s actually out-prowling Hatosy in a lot of scenes, which is just what the scripts are calling for. Where once Sammy would have been the hero for caring about a young boy who’s a victim of the system (remember What Makes Sammy Run? A Coker script and one of the greatest episodes of the show), now he is outshined by the sheer magnitude of Sherman’s ruthlessness. Sammy almost seems out of touch in this new, more aggressive world, which is the world of season five (set in motion by the darkness at the end of season four).

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The show evolves with each season, and it’s much rawer and more streamlined than ever.

It’s the one inch punch of TV drama.

Random Witness Statements:

  •  The guest stars are extraordinary. Every time.
  • “Maybe you should get a carpet.”
  • Alcala added to the show’s visual texture with his helicopter shots
  • “You got a dirty, dirty mind.”
  • The woman picking up the money in front of Sherman after the train fight — the perfect coda to the scene
  • “For such a genius, you’re awfully handcuffed.”

SouthLAnd “Babel”: Fallback mode, just like the old days

With the third episode of this fifth season, SouthLAnd took it to another level.

With first-timer (to the show) Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s emotionally scathing script imbuing an aggressive new style with a classic old-school feel, and Jimmy Muro’s basically goddamn brilliant direction (and lighting), this was one of the great SouthLAnd episodes.

The script had some of Chitra Sampath’s anarchic humor (Bryant and Hatosy doing a hand-puppet show for first-graders), Cheo Coker’s pop culture style and graceful nods to the old ways (Cooper’s note-perfect conversation with his former TO), Heather Zuhlke’s textural genius and Jonathan Lisco’s precise emotional scalpel. But this is not to say it was not original — it was. Thomas integrated everything that makes the show great and made it into something new: Babel was sharper, faster moving, more streamlined. His beats and scenes had a raucous, deliberately unstable energy. He nailed the inherent absurdity potential of life on the streets, and also the way that ridiculousness can tip over into gut-wrenching horror. Dewey’s boot nearly decapitating herself on a steel wire during a pursuit; the skateboard thugs vs. the old-timers; the hallucinogenic lemonade (really); the ongoing farce of Sammy and Tammi spilling over into real danger; the quiet, implacable horror of the shootings; the sadness of Cooper at the world maybe changing faster than he can handle. All those things flowed, smoothly, seamlessly, woven together by the overall chaos of LAPD dispatch being down. Communication was all over the place; the episode was perfectly titled.

It rocked on the page, and with Muro calling the shots, you know it rolled on the screen.

Shots fired

Shots fired

Jimmy Muro, man. What a legend. Not only is he a legendary DP who has worked with some of the greatest directors of all time on some of the greatest movies of all time  (Michael Mann’s Heat being a prime example), but he knows how to shoot the shit out of a script himself. Babel was his finest directorial work on SouthLAnd yet. It’s like he shoots in 3D — he adds a visual dimension that many directors miss. This was one of the most beautifully composed episodes in the show’s history. It was there when the camera was on Sammy driving, looking past him at Sherman on the passenger side, the depth of field through Sherman’s window — the sheer level of detail in the angles all the way into the distance was beautiful. It was present in the constant wheeling glimpses of the fortress LA skyline in the background of shots, the causal integration of the incredible architecture of the city.

Muro gets that LA skyline

Muro gets that LA skyline

Every scene was expertly staged and shot for maximum chaos and viscerality: the skate thugs scene was simple on the surface, but highly complex underneath. The car racing past and swerving within a few inches of Cooper on the street was an adrenaline-pumping second or two; it was brilliantly done — the scene just kept moving. Or in a simpler moment, when Lydia and Ruben were talking to the mother of the murdered kid (her third murdered child), Muro kept the camera focused on a picture of the three kids, while the principals in the scene were out of focus.

Genius in every shot. And that included the actors.

As always, the guest actors were phenomenal. The teacher coming on to Sherman, the old lady taking on the skate thugs; they, and the others, brought a tremendous realism  to every second they were on screen — they were (and always are ) one of the key components of the greatness of this show.

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

The core cast nailed it too. The shifting relationship between Bryant and Sherman is being portrayed with absolutely incredible acting by Hatosy and McKenzie. It’s a complex relationship, and they’re making us believe every up and down of it. Cudlitz was really great too. His emotional conversation with his former TO on the boat was a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance. Don’t retire, Cooper!

McShane and Cudlitz

McShane and Cudlitz

So, yeah, this was a kick-ass episode, up there in the pantheon of great SouthLAnd eps. And the preview for next week looked even more insane. Season Five is going from strength to strength.

Random witness statements:

  • It’s so great to have Tommy Howell as a regular
  • Can we get Jamie McShane promoted to regular too?
  • “I’m driving. I am contact.”
  • JIMMY MURO
  • Sometimes things get lost in translation — great opening voiceover.